Photo Courtesy of Gehl Architects
The Dutch and the Danes haven’t always come out of the womb pedaling. Similar to much of North America, both countries were affected by the rise of car culture in the 1960s and 1970s, and for more than a decade, they were heading towards the gas pedal rather than the bicycle pedal. But different from North America, the Netherlands and Denmark both had a history of cycling and indeed, after World War II, the bicycle was the only mode of transport most people could afford. Today, most people there are wealthy enough to afford a car, but large numbers still choose to cycle.
But not all of Europe is a cycling paradise. Far from it. There are any number of places where cycling is next to nonexistent and even some where the number of cyclists has dropped over time. There are also European cities that are making a real effort to develop a culture of cycling where none existed before. This presents a range of lessons to be learned from the good, the used-to-be-good and the up-and-comers.
How Copenhagen Got to Be Copenhagen
As in North America, there was a spirit of protest in the air in Europe in the 1960s and 1970s. In the United States, the protests were not just against racism and the Vietnam War, but also against the destruction of local neighborhoods for the sake of more roads. In New York City, for example, the Lower Manhattan Expressway was stopped by citizen protesters. In San Francisco, the Freeway Revolt prevented several freeways from being built. And in Vancouver, BC, citizens stopped a highway planned to run along the waterfront in the downtown core.
It seems safe to say that if there had been a culture of cycling in North America before the 1960s, activists of the day would have saved it. But that culture didn’t exist. And while many neighborhoods were saved from destruction by passionate citizens, the car still won in the end, claiming the dominant position in the streets of our cities and in the hearts and minds of most of our people.
Copenhagen could have gone the same way. As a symbol of upward social mobility in the 1960s, more and more cars started appearing on the streets. The city was planning for a major influx of cars from such projects as a motorway directly into the city center. Public demonstrations were held against the idea, and – maybe equally important – there was a pragmatic recognition that it was an expensive undertaking and the city didn’t have the money for it.
Although the cry to “get cars out of the city” was getting louder, cycling numbers continued to decline steadily. It wasn’t until the oil crisis in 1973 that things began to change. Gas prices tripled and people couldn’t afford to drive. The gas shortage led to mandatory car-free Sundays. These Sundays reminded people both of the vulnerability that comes from depending on cars and of how much more pleasant walking and cycling are in a car-light environment.